Abiy Ahmed: Ethiopia’s Man of the Hour?

In only a few months, Ethiopia has undergone vast changes under their new Prime Minister. Our Co-Online Features Editor investigates these recent developments.

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In April, Abiy Ahmed was sworn in as the new Prime Minister of Ethiopia after the forced resignation of his predecessor Hailemariam Desalegn. When Ahmed proclaimed that “This is a very historic moment for Ethiopia”, few could envisage the actions that would follow his words. In only a few months of his premiership, Ahmed has ended the Eritrean border dispute and is seemingly leading Ethiopia down a promising path with his unprecedented reforms.

Abiy Ahmed (Source: Wiki Commons)

Desalegn had succumbed to sectional pressure and resigned in February, consequently leaving Ethiopia under a state of emergency. Months prior to him exiting office, Ethiopia had witnessed violent protests that resulted in hundreds of deaths. The initial motive behind the protests had been over disputed land rights but later morphed into cries of ethnic marginalisation from the Oromo and Amhara ethnic groups. Oromo protesters expressed feeling dominated politically, economically, and socially by the Tigrayan group, despite being the country’s largest group. The intensified ethnic tensions led the ruling coalition party, The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, to seek stronger leadership during such hostile and fragile times. Once picked as Desalegn’s successor, Ahmed wasted no time in setting a new agenda.

The most striking policy set out by Ahmed was his decision to end the long-running border dispute with Eritrea. In June, Ahmed stated that Ethiopia would finally accept a border ruling, made by a UN-backed border commission, and recognise the town of Badme as Eritrean territory. A series of diplomatic meeting followed which concluded with a declaration made, both by Ahmed and the Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, at a meeting in Eritrea’s capital, Asmara. An agreement was made which authorised the reconnecting of phone lines, resumption of airline service, and the opening of embassies between the two nations. At the historic signing, Ahmed gave a promising outlook stating that “The march toward peace might have been a long time coming but we have faith in the love and solidarity of our people”. Eritrea, formally a part Ethiopia before their 1993 secession, had maintained a largely hostile stance towards their southern neighbour – until now. Citizens of both nations were quick to express their jubilation on social media.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and President Isaias Afewerki after signing the Joint Declaration of Peace and Friendship (Source: Wiki Commons)

Since April, Ahmed has introduced a wave of unprecedented reforms. Initially, the state of emergency was lifted in a move to end state-conducted crimes against humanity and civilian suppression. Ahmed vehemently condemned the alleged acts of torture, by state officials, and the imprisonment of political dissidents. Shortly after, Ahmed fired the head of Ethiopia’s prison services and ordered the removal of three opposition groups from the government’s list of terrorist organisation. In line with his liberalising policy, bans were lifted on numerous websites and media publications. After China’s reported threat to limit Ethiopian investment and his acknowledgement of the country’s reliance on capital from the UAE, Ahmed set out to transform Ethiopia’s state-controlled economy through partial privatisation and the enticing of international organisations.

Ahmed has brought his youthful effervescence and diplomatic prowess to the government

When reflecting on Ahmed’s life, one may easily think his rise to power was pre-ordained. The 42-year-old has entered his premiership with experience from working with military intelligence to his involvement with international peacekeeping. Ahmed is the first Oromo Ethiopian leader. His ethnicity made him a prime candidate as he was able to reach out to the disgruntled group. Not only does his fluency in four of the country’s main languages arm him with diplomatic tools, but also his doctorate in peace and security studies. In 1995 Ahmed was assigned to Rwanda as a UN peacekeeper. Over a decade later, in 2010, Ahmed entered politics where he was quickly elevated to the executive committee of the Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation. Ahmed has brought his youthful effervescence and diplomatic prowess to the government and, consequently, has received comparisons to liberal leaders such as Barack Obama. Despite his seemingly irreproachable profile, he still has a sizeable opposition.

In June, at a Pro-Ahmed rally in the capital Addis Ababa, a grenade was set off on a crowd of Ahmed’s supporters. The blast killed two people and injured over 150 others. Prior to the rally, there were other attempts made to disrupt the event which led to the arrest of 9 police officers. Ahmed was aware of the internal and external threats he would face, and consequently ordered a cabinet reshuffle and the firing of potentially rebellious senior civil servants. His decision to hand over disputed territory has angered sections of the Ethiopian population, and his condemnation of state-committed human rights abuses has evoked similar contempt from Ahmed’s government agencies.

Drastic reform is needed to reverse years of economic mismanagement and isolation

Ahmed has adopted a country with many dire issues. Ethiopia is highly divided ethnically and culturally. The ruling coalition party is unified only by name, and the factions within it remain combative on a range of contentious issues. Drastic reform is needed to reverse years of economic mismanagement and isolation. Only by encouraging international investment, will Ahmed be able to end the critical foreign currency shortage and reduce their dependency on nations such as the UAE and China – whose motives remain questionable.

He has seemingly resuscitated Ethiopia from the brink of social calamity

Praise must be awarded to this new prime minister for the pace taken to enact such unprecedented diplomatic and governmental reforms. He has seemingly resuscitated Ethiopia from the brink of social calamity and has set an example for neighbouring African leaders. However, he still has a long way to go. In order for Ahmed to make long-term changes and truly democratise the country, he must change Ethiopia’s seemingly autocratic nature of governance. Whilst the vast power granted to himself and his cabinet may have been used positively so far, it is important to remember the unfortunate track-record set by many previous African leaders who began well-intentioned but, through despotism, left office in disrepute.

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